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The War for Australia’s Past

Woke activists have launched an attack on the Land Down Under’s national day.

Soldiers Wearing Various British Army Uniforms
(Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Australia ought to be in the world’s gaze for being a successful, affluent, confident country that serves as a model for democracies around the world, with a commitment to the rule of law and liberty. Instead, it has now become the habit this time every year for the world to focus upon us as a model of the divisiveness and bitterness caused by the pursuit of identity politics. 

The latest front in Australia’s culture war is the effort by woke activists to eliminate celebration of Australia Day on January 26—the commemoration of the British First Fleet of immigrants and convicts arriving in Sydney Cove in 1788. Opponents say this is no day for celebration because it marks the anniversary of the dispossession of Indigenous Australians and the “invasion” of their land.

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What they don’t choose to do is to study the history of the period, or to ask what the alternatives for Australia might be: after all, if the British had not colonized this great land mass in the late 18th century, it is a fair bet the Dutch, Spanish, French or even the Japanese would have done so. 

Moreover, the identity politics argument, which places the Indigenous people of Australia as sovereign in a country the colonizers built, does not take into account that we do not start from 1788. We start from here.

As with other popular leftist-inspired movements of recent years—one thinks notably of Black Lives Matter—they become ideal vehicles for virtue-signaling by public figures who like to identify themselves with what they conceive as progressive causes. In the run-up to Australia Day, no less than the captain of Australia’s cricket team, Pat Cummins, asked for the national day to be moved from January 26, to sever the connection with the British arrival on that day in 1788.  

In the world of tennis, the organizers of the Australian Open in Melbourne refused for the second year running to mark Australia Day. This followed from the leftist Victorian state government’s decision to scrap celebrations and, in keeping with the obsession with ‘woke’, chose instead to stage various parades celebrating minorities. As with all identity politics, the objective is to make the majority (and in this case, a vast majority) feel ashamed of itself.

The commercial world felt under pressure to join in snubbing the national commemoration. Woolworths, a leading supermarket chain, felt it a good idea to ban the sale of Australia Day merchandise from its stores. This led to Peter Dutton, the leader of the center-right Opposition, to call for a boycott of the business; two stores were vandalized and there were claims that people were being rude to staff.

Aggression is to be deplored, but such behavior is an indication of how angry Australians have become about the attempt by a self-appointed minority to overturn an established part of their way of life.

Yet such considerations mean nothing to Australia’s left-wing ruling elite, who are only too happy to jump on this bandwagon. Anthony Albanese, as prime minister, has been reluctant to express support for the traditional celebration. Australia’s High Commissioner in London, Stephen Smith, refused to use his High Commission for the traditional Australia Day charity fundraiser, because of the controversy that the minority of objectors have now imposed upon the occasion.

Unfortunately for Australia’s current ruling elite, the people are not behind them. One recent poll shows that 63 percent of people want the commemoration marked as usual; only 17 percent do not, and the rest professed not to know. This echoes last year’s referendum that would have added racial identity to the Australian constitution: 60 percent of Australians did not want the so-called Indigenous Voice to Parliament and only 40 percent did: and that, too, came after a campaign in which easily-manipulated sports stars had, without giving any evidence of great political sophistication, urged their fellow Australians to support this radical change. 

Australians did not oppose the Voice, and do not continue to celebrate Australia Day, because we are vicious racists or white supremacists. We took these views because we know how tolerant and successful a multi-racial country Australia is, and we also know the enormous lengths to which successive Australian governments of all shades have gone in recent decades to support and advance the interests of Indigenous people.

Nevertheless, the left now accuses conservatives of waging a “culture war” as a result of our temerity in objecting to this assault on the conventional Australian way of life. They clearly believe that it is acceptable for progressive elites to undermine the established structure of a successful liberal democracy, but resisting their new demands and rules is deemed an act of aggression. If there is a culture war down under, then it was initiated by the Australian left. (Sounds familiar?)

Around the universities of the English-speaking world, and not least in England itself, there has for some years been a concerted attempt to portray the British past as one of almost relentless evil, especially in the imperial endeavor. The influence of this on minority political thought in debates, such as over Australia Day, has been profound. Yet it is rooted not in historical fact, but in pure ideology.

No one sane pretends that everything about the British imperial project was good: It entailed much cruelty and what we would now call a disregard of basic human rights. But, again, we start from here. Australia is a country of which its citizens of all cultures can be intensely proud, and it is the result of that imperial project. Those cultures have learned to be tolerant and respectful of each other within the national democracy.

Australia Day, celebrated on January 26, should continue to be an affirmation of those essentially humane values. Those who condemn that legacy are the real problem, not those who wish to continue to develop it.

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